The Opportunity of “I Don’t Know”

“I am sorry, I just don’t get it.” We have all experienced this in the classroom and I often wonder how many students feel this way but don’t speak up. It can be intimidating for the person who makes this statement. They often represent many others who feel the same way but are reluctant to speak. Our immediate response must be acknowledgment and support for the student. It’s not a delay in the class but an opportunity to try a new explanation, example or demonstration that improves our teaching.

In the intimacy of an in-person class it can be easier to provide support in this situation. Body language such as head nods/facial expressions give us immediate clues from participants which indicate others who may be struggling. You have real-time feedback. You also have the ability for one-on-one conversation later on, in the class or on break, to check in and reinforce the concepts to ensure full understanding.

The webinar environment presents other challenges to gauging the comprehension of the class:

  1. Cameras may be off so we can miss the subtle signs of confusion or disinterest
  2. There are no obvious opportunities for one-on-one discussion.
  3. Students who feel lost may be more inclined to disengage and provide even less essential feedback to the instructor

We believe that there are five things you can do to overcome these obstacles:

  1. Create an extra breakout room. If I have five breakout room groups for example, I will always have a sixth room ready for a quick discussion before they join their group. I don’t need to announce it and the opportunity for private dialogue is always appreciated.
  2. Connect directly over email. Zoom and other programs have chat features but these can quickly become bogged down with larger groups. I find direct email can be very helpful and I often use it to send messages and attachments directly to my participants. It also means that they can usually access it on another device and have a record of our communication following the webinar.
  3. Be specific with your help. It is always tempting so say “it’s in the presentation” or “refer to the answer key” but it is always better to point to specific items, page numbers or videos. We use our Marqueepedia online library this way to provide blended learning and reinforcement for our webinars.
  4. Find a more relevant example. Despite trying to pick material that is generally relatable to everyone who takes our courses, certain participants may not connect with the examples that we are using in class.Understanding the participant’s particular workflow and work experience can lead to the development (on the fly, or after the session) of a better example that resonates with the student. Sometimes this “personal connection” with a problem can make all the difference. If it works, I usually can’t wait to share it with the broader class. “Tony asked a great question earlier when he said that this topic wasn’t clear. What if we explain it this way….” The class benefits and I have just added more to my teaching toolkit.
  5. Learning doesn’t stop at the end of class. I will often email participants after our courses to check in and make sure that they are mastering the material. This often leads to some great insights into how our participants are using the techniques we have taught them and the way they have organized their thoughts during class. This is not an altruistic impulse – we often get great ideas on how to present and communicate ideas from this outreach.

By being proactive the goal is to make “I don’t get it” a chance for everyone to benefit.